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The boys who cried sheep. The politics of the end of lockdown

May 18th, 2020

Baby it’s cold outside. And don’t the public know it. The government’s Stay Home, Stay Safe campaign has been stunningly effective. A large chunk of the public is now firmly committed to Staying Home and Saving Lives.  They aren’t going to stop doing that just because a mere Prime Minister tells them otherwise. They’re having the mother of all duvet days.

This is now becoming a problem. The government needs the economy to revive as soon as possible. It can only do so if the public cooperate with this objective. That means they need to start to become more economically active.

This is a much more nuanced message and the government has not yet found the right way of expressing it. This is hard. You try to find a way of saying: “we can’t afford you to stay at home indefinitely, even though the danger hasn’t completely passed, so get back to work as soon as possible with an eye to safety”. I’m sure the government would welcome suggestions. “Stay Alert” was much mocked and it is too vague to get the message across to everyone it needs to reach. But I haven’t seen anyone express it better.

The government has to deal with an unusually well-informed public with entrenched views. People can see that Covid-19, like toothpaste, cannot be squeezed back into the tube. Until it is, they have no intention of being squeezed back onto the tube either.

That means that however uncomfortable it may be for it, the government is going to need to be a lot more direct about what it expects of the public, and why. The public are going to need to be briefed on the other risks they are forgetting.

This is doable, but it will take work. The public are naturally going to respond more to salient risks: people worry a lot more about being struck by lightning than about taking care on staircases, but 700 or so people die each year in the UK falling down stairs and just a couple each year from being struck by lightning. More people died following the increase in road usage in the US caused by people avoiding flying in the wake of 9/11 than died in 9/11 itself.

So the government needs to show the public the less obvious risks they are forgetting and increase their salience. This is going to be hard work, it will take time and initially at least it will mean that the government becomes more unpopular. It is also necessary.

And here we encounter a big problem. For this message to get across, the messenger needs to be credible. To date, all the people advocating an end to the lockdown were initially arguing that Covid-19 was all a fuss about nothing.  The public are just not going to trust outriders of this type because they won’t believe that they understand the dangers. They have argued too often too loudly that there is nothing to worry about for the public to put faith in them. They have cried sheep once too often.

There is really only one man for the job: the Prime Minister. The public will listen to him because he had such a serious bout of Covid-19. No one is going to think he doesn’t appreciate the risks of it.

It will, however, require him to be very direct, to risk upsetting many of his supporters and to endure a loss of popularity in the short and perhaps the medium term.  He has to date always gone for the easy clap lines rather than deliver complex messages that are difficult for his base to stomach.  Can he break a very long-standing habit? It would be a very good time for him to start.

Alastair Meeks